Zei a gutte Yid

The presence of the entire family gathered on Seder night provides an occasion to speak to our children unlike any other time of the year.

seder 150 (photo credit: Courtesy: David Geffen ‘American Heritage Haggadah)
seder 150
(photo credit: Courtesy: David Geffen ‘American Heritage Haggadah)
A respected talmid hacham (Torah scholar) shared with me the following story, or more accurately stories within stories, to convey the essence of the mitzva of Seder night – “And you shall tell it to your son...”
One year he took his family away for Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Passover, to a small settlement in the Galilee. Most of the inhabitants of the settlement were simple people whose primary livelihood came from renting out cottages during summer vacation. The arrival of a talmid hacham in distinctive dress at the settlement occasioned much interest, and he was asked to deliver the traditional Shabbat Hagadol drasha (sermon).
My friend was used to speaking to advanced yeshiva students, and he wondered what he could say that would benefit a largely unlearned audience. In the end, he decided to speak about how precious Seder night is, and how we can take advantage of the opportunity it affords us. Seder night, he stressed, is much more than a wonderful occasion for the entire family – often three generations together – to gather around the table. It is the time for a father to convey to his children the essence of his “ani ma’amin,” to share with them the lessons that he would most like to be remembered by and, even more importantly, that he would like his children to live by.
To bring home to them what he was talking about, he told them the following story.
One of the talmidim in the yeshiva in which my friend taught lost his father. My friend went to comfort his student, and as was his custom, he kept the discussion centered entirely on the deceased. His student told him that his father had never had much of an opportunity to learn Torah. At a young age, he had arrived in England on one of the Kindertransports from Germany. Because he came all by himself, without any family members, he was eventually sent to Palestine, where he made his way to Petah Tikva.
Though he had never learned in a yeshiva, he remained religious and, in time, became the initiator of almost everything that took place in the Great Synagogue of Petah Tikva. He arranged the various shiurim (classes) in the shul – shiurim which he faithfully attended himself. And he was the one who took responsibility for the upkeep of the shul. His sons, still young at the time of his passing, all grew to be talmidei hachamim. The younger boy, only around 10 at the time of his father’s death, eventually became the son-in-law of a major rosh yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael. (The shiva visit itself took place many years before its substance was related in the Shabbat Hagadol drasha.)
While still at the shiva house, my friend asked the older of the sons the secret of his father’s success. How did someone with little formal learning and all alone in the world from a young age grow to be someone who took upon himself so much responsibility for the community and merit so much success with his own children? The young man replied that he had only recently thought about the question for the first time. Until then, his father was just his father, and everything about him was just the way it was. But when it finally occurred to him to wonder how his father had remained faithful to his Judaism while so many from ostensibly more favorable circumstances had not, he had asked his father, who answered with a story from his own childhood.
When he was a young boy, less than 10 years old, his father sent him to Germany from the town in which they lived in Austria. For some reason, only he was allowed to cross the border. Father and son sat in the early morning darkness waiting for the train that would separate them forever. Neither spoke.
Finally the lights of the train appeared. As the father lifted his son onto the train, he broke the silence. “Zei a gutte Yid – remain a good Jew,” he told his son. As the train began to pull out of the station, the father ran alongside yelling, “Zei a gutte a Yid!” The train gained speed, and the father kept running after it, screaming, “Zei a gutte Yid!” As he ran, the father tripped and fell prostrate on the station platform. That image of his father running after the train and then falling, as he desperately tried to implant the message to be a good Jew in his son’s heart, remained with the young boy the rest of his life. And he lived up to it, under the most adverse circumstances.
When he had finished telling the story of those last minutes between a Jewish father and son and their lifelong impact, my friend urged his listeners to view the Seder night as if it were the last five minutes that they would have with their children, the last chance that they would have to influence them.
THE EVENTS connected to the Exodus from Egypt, writes Nahmanides in a famous passage, teach us the three most basic aspects of traditional Jewish belief: that God is Creator of the universe, for only the Creator could have suspended the laws of nature as happened in Egypt; that God is involved in His creation, and did not just set the universe in motion and abandon the scene; and the truth of Moses’s prophecy.
For that reason, great energy has been devoted to the pedagogy of the Seder, to ensure that these messages are conveyed in the most powerful fashion possible. How should we fulfill the commandment “Vehigadeta levincha – and you shall tell your son”? By telling him, “Ba’avur zeh asa Hashem li b’tzeiti mimitzrayim – on account of that which Hashem did for me in my going out from Egypt.”
“Zeh [this]” is the language of pointing. The going out of Egypt must be something tangible to us, a real event in which we are taking part. Only then will it become real to our children as well.
“In the normal course, something which took place many years earlier lacks the power to profoundly affect us,” writes the Alter of Kelm. “Therefore Chazal [our Sages] instruct us to involve all our senses, and to visualize the events time after time, until we ourselves personally experience them. Only in that fashion will the memory of Egypt make a profound effect upon one.”
The Haggada is built around questions and answers because that is the most effective way of conveying knowledge. Only one who first feels the absence of something will remember the answer when he hears it.
Even in the death camps, Jews risked their lives to collect wheat kernels to bake matzot and to conduct a Seder, so powerful were their memories of Sedarim in happier times – and perhaps more importantly, so great was their need for the lifting of spirits that only a Seder could provide.
The power of the memories, the presence of the entire family, from youngest to oldest, gathered around the table on Seder night provide an occasion to speak to our children unlike any other time of the year. It is an opportunity to convey to them not just the essentials of Jewish belief over the millennia, but also the principles of our own lives that we wish to pass on to them, and from them to their children and to their children’s children.
Let us not waste the opportunity.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.